We live in an age of dissidents. The well-earned triumph of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma this week fills us with joy because she has worked so patiently for so long to persuade her countrymen to turn toward democracy. No doubt there are still years of struggle ahead, but something significant has changed in the country and much of it is due to the strength and courage of one woman.
Here in America we haven’t had a nation-changing heroine like Aung San Suu Kyi, but we have had several women who have showed courage in standing up for their beliefs despite the opposition of friends and neighbors. This week I want to honor one of them, who has nearly been forgotten over the years, a woman who fought against slavery even though she lived in Virginia during a time when most Virginians strongly supported the institution.
Slavery had been a problem since the beginning of the country. By 1850s, some Virginians and people in other Southern states were talking about breaking away from the United States over the slavery question. They worried that Northerners would put an end to slavery and this would cause hardship for the South. Eventually the quarreling became so bitter that theVirginialegislature voted to quit theUnited States. They joined the Confederacy of Southern states to become a new country.
Still many Virginians did not want to leave the United States. Men who opposed joining the Confederacy could join the Union Army and fight to preserve the country. Women weren’t allowed to be soldiers, so they had to find different ways of supporting theUnited States. Elizabeth van Lew was one of these women. She believed that slavery was wrong. She lovedVirginia, but she loved her country more and believed secession was a tragedy.
After fighting broke out close to Richmond, Elizabeth and her mother got permission to nurse wounded Union soldiers.Elizabethhelped the soldiers write letters to their families. She also found another way to help—she became a spy.
A network of people helped get soldiers’ letters to the Northern states. They were taken on boats flying a “flag of truce,” which were allowed to sail between Virginia and the Northern States. General Benjamin Butler, a Union officer, heard aboutElizabeth’s work and asked whether she could send information about the movements of Southern troops. He did this by sending a letter addressed to “my dear aunt” and signed with a false name. The letter was carried toElizabethby a Northern agent who slipped through the Confederate lines. When the letter was treated with acid and heat, another letter written in invisible ink appeared. In this letterButlerasked her if she would “aid the Union cause by furnishing me with information”.
Soon Elizabeth was able to set up a system through which she could send secret messages to a false address in the North. They were then picked up and sent to General Butler.Elizabethcouldn’t travel around the city, because she was a well-known and wealthy woman and people noticed her. Usually she sent a servant, often a young boy, to carry the letters to the ship. People didn’t pay much attention to teenage boys walking around the streets near the port.
Elizabeth got her information just by watching what was going on in the city. She was also able to talk with Confederate army officers and officials. Most of them did not believe a woman could be collecting information for the North. They consideredElizabethjust another wealthy society woman.
Elizabeth not only sent information to the North. She also helped to hide Union prisoners when they escaped from the military prisons inRichmond. She and her mother nursed prisoners who were sick or injured and let them stay in the house until they were strong enough to travel.
When the war ended with the Union victory, Elizabeth was made postmaster of Richmond. This was a tribute to her services to the Union cause. Most of her neighbors, however, never forgave her for being loyal to her country instead of to the South. She lived a sad and lonely life, forgotten by the North and scorned by the Southerners who lived around her. It takes a lot of courage to fight and suffer for an unpopular cause.
2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Van Lew: Woman of the Week”
I’m very happy to hear about the novel coming out. I look forward to reading it and finding out more about Mary Bowser. There are so many fascinating characters lost (or almost forgotten) in our history.
Thanks for this thoroughly researched post–much of what can be found online about Van Lew isn’t necessarily accurate, and it’s great to discover better sources. For another view of the Van Lew women, see *The Secrets of Mary Bowser* which comes out from HarperCollins/William Morrow next month. This is a work of fiction, but it is based on many details of the Van Lews’ lives, along with the life of Bowser, who posed as a slave in the Confederate White House to gather information for Bet to pass to the Union. The book is written for adults but is also appropriate for high school students, especially anyone who might be more interested in reading a character-driven story than a work of nonfiction. Elizabeth Van Lew certainly was a character.